U.S. Intellectual History Blog

George Kateb’s Place In The History Of Political Philosophy

In the course of researching the reviews of Mortimer J. Adler’s 1970s books, I ran across one by George Kateb. At the time he was a junior faculty member at Amherst College*, but is now an emeritus professor at Princeton University.

I don’t know anything about Kateb’s reputation among political philosophers, but his Wikipedia entry (or “Professor Wikipedia,” in Bill Fine’s words) calls him a “staunch individualist” and relays that “Kateb, along with John Rawls and Isaiah Berlin, is credited with making significant contributions to liberal political theory.” Heady company. Suffice it to say that he is a champion for liberalism.

Here are the books authored by him alone:

Utopia and Its Enemies. New York and London: Free Press, l963. Reprinted with a new Preface, New York: Schocken, l972.
Political Theory: Its Nature and Uses. New York: St Martin’s Press, l968.
Hannah Arendt: Politics, Conscience, Evil. Totowa, N.J. and London: Rowman and Allanheld, l984.
The Inner Ocean: Individualism and Democratic Culture. Ithaca and London: Cornell University Press, 1992.
Emerson and Self-Reliance. Sage, 1994. 2d edition, with a new Preface, New York: Rowman and Littlefield, 2002.
Patriotism and Other Mistakes. New Haven: Yale University Press, 2006.

The topics that are the objects of these books arise in predictable spots when one searches the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy online. This at least affirms something of Kateb’s authority, or usefulness.

What do you know about Kateb? Where does he appear in USIH historiography? I haven’t found him in any recent intellectual histories. So how can he really be on par with Rawls and Berlin in terms of contributions to political philosophy? What is Kateb’s place in the history of American political philosophy? Who _is_ George Kateb?

Not that this answers any of my questions, but Kateb has made an appearance at the NYT philosophy blog, The Stone (the link takes you to a video interview–here’s a transcripted excerpt). There Kateb characterizes himself “as an oncologist or pathologist of politics.” To that point, his Wikipedia page adds: “More recently Kateb has turned his attention to what he sees as the increasing erosion of individual liberty wrought by the Bush administration and the poisonous influence of religious, ethnic and statist group identity on morality.” Most interesting.

My inclination is to put him in the camp of non-analytic political philosophers whose works support a kind of secular libertarianism. But he also appears to have some sense of community responsibility. So perhaps he is simply a paragon of the individualist strain in mid-century liberalism. Thoughts? Let’s see if we can build some kind of historiography in relation to his thought in the comments. – TL

*Kateb was interviewed by Amherst professor William Taubman in 2008.

27 Thoughts on this Post

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  1. As you know, I’m not approaching my work from the “social history of intellectuals” side of things, so fitting Kateb or anybody else into a hierarchy of influence isn’t something I’d take on. However, it’s always good to have some sense of the batting order.

    Who writes Wikipedia entries? It’s a serious question — are there “usernames” that are tracked/recorded for the authorship/changing of pages? It would be good to know who is making the claim of parity. Kateb himself? One of his grad students? A philosophy prof/student working on the other philosophers?

    As to figuring out how to characterize his philosophy, maybe you could take a look at some of his work. Per EBSCO, his two most recent journal articles are

    Kateb, George. 2008. “Morality and Self-Sacrifice, Martyrdom and Self-Denial.” Social Research 75, no. 2: 353-394. Academic Search Complete, EBSCOhost (accessed January 19, 2012).


    Kateb, George. 2009. “Locke and the Political Origins of Secularism.” Social Research 76, no. 4: 1001-1034. Academic Search Complete, EBSCOhost (accessed January 19, 2012).

    From the earlier EBSCO listings, it looks like he has done a great deal of work on Hannah Arendt.

    I was highly amused by how he titled this review he did of Berlin’s Vico and Herder:

    Kateb, George. 1976. “A Foxy Hedgehog.” American Scholar 46, no. 1: 124. Academic Search Complete, EBSCOhost (accessed January 19, 2012).

    • LD: Thanks for the extra citations. As for the Wikipedia change, you can get in and theoretically see the editing, but it’s still hard to pin changes on specific people. That is a witty title on the American Scholar piece. – TL

  2. Do political philosophers break into intellectual history all that much? Take one of Kateb’s colleagues, Philip Pettit. He’s one of the biggest names in the republicanism revival. But will that show up in intellectual history per se? Another of his colleagues, Maurizio Viroli, also is a contributor to the republican revival, but he has written a lot about Machiavelli and Rousseau, so he crosses more into intellectual history proper. Maybe it depends more on whether one does normative political theory, as Kateb seems to, or historical political theory, as Viroli does.

    Either way, I’d say that cataloguing mentions of Kateb in intellectual histories, or non-mentions, is no way to gauge his influence and reputation within his own field.

    • Speaking as a political theorist, I can attest that Kateb is a very big deal in the field. Partially as a teacher — he’s legendary on that score — but also as the voice for a kind of distinctly American radical individualism that is not libertarianism (there’s no valorization of the market in his work; he’s also deeply concerned about questions of equality) but is almost antimonian in its suspicion of authority (think Winstanley, a very aesthetic version of the Diggers). He’s hard to pin down politically, which is what makes him interesting. He’s also a superb stylist, which makes him fun to read. His book on Arendt was one of the very first to grapple with her legacy and is still required reading among Arendt scholars. He was also one of the early of more recent theorists to point to the significance of Emerson, Whitman, and Thoreau for democratic political thought; that’s all passe now, but he was a bit of a pioneer in that regard. He doesn’t really fit into any school — that might be why it’s hard to find him in any conventional intellectual history — but he’s a major presence. He attracts the interest of a very diverse crew of theorists — everyone from Tom Dumm to David Bromwich to William Connolly to Joshua Dienstag to Richard Flathman. A kind of radical liberalism, with strong aesthetic overtones, but not radical in any conventional sense. What Richard Poirier would have been had he been a political theorist?

    • Am I right to associate his thinking a bit with Judith Shklar’s? I have a vague notion that there’s a connection there, but if I ever knew what it was, I can’t remember what it is (I just checked and he didn’t get his PhD from Harvard).

    • Speaking as an intellectual historian, I am unfamiliar with all these names: “everyone from Tom Dumm to David Bromwich to William Connolly to Joshua Dienstag to Richard Flathman.” And Richard Poirier, too. That’s what happens when you opt for history over political science, I guess.

      The only reason I know Kateb’s name, and Ben is correct on this score, is that he wrote the foreword to a posthumous collection of Judith Shklar’s essays which I consulted once. I forget the title, but it had her essay on the liberalism of fear in it.

  3. In addition to being aware of Kateb as a presence at Princeton when I was in grad school, I’ve encountered him in my present project. He hasn’t written much about Strauss, but what he has written is really smart (you’ll find some in the edited volume Hannah Arendt and Leo Strauss: German Emigrés and American Political Thought after Sorld War II (Cambridge University Press, 1995).

    @ Varad: I think you’re right that political philosophers, especially post-World War II, are understudied by US intellectual historians. This probably has something to do with their academic position. They were split between political theorists in poli sci departments (where they have been far from the dominant subfield) and political philosophers in philosophy departments (where they are also less than central to the analytical strain that dominated US philosophy for the second half of the 20th century). As has been noted many times before, post-WWII academic philosophy as a whole is understudied by US intellectual historians.

    (Did someone turn on threading in the comments? Yay!)

    • Wait, threading? I like it in theory, but in practice I like having all comments stacked up one after another so I don’t have to go chasing after the latest one.

      Ben: I think you’re spot on about why political philosophers, at least contemporary ones aren’t well known in intellectual history, with a few notable exceptions like Rawls. The field itself seems pretty fragmented, with historians of political philosophy/thought scattered across three disciplines (poly sci, history, and philosophy), and political theorists divided into philosophy and poly sci. And as you note, the latter’s a red-headed stepchild in both departments. The philosophy grad students I talked to on a few occasions were quite clear that at least with them political philosophy is routinely deprecated.

      “As has been noted many times before, post-WWII academic philosophy as a whole is understudied by US intellectual historians.”

      I’m sure I’m one of those who’s said that a few times on this blog, although I’ve always extended that comment to include 20th-century analytic philosophy as a whole. But that might be just the training I received. I’ve never been sure.

  4. Varad, my comment wasn’t meant as a reply to yours; I seem to have just gotten myself accidentally ensnared (en-threaded?) there. It was a general comment on Kateb and meant to provide some background in response to Tim’s post. Richard Poirier was not a political scientist. He was a literary critic and a founder, I believe, of Raritan. David Bromwich is also not a political scientist but a literary critic and intellectual historian. I’m surprised that you, as a student of eighteenth-century intellectual history, don’t know him or his work.

  5. Thanks to every one for tuning in. This has been instructive—thanks to the comments.

    @Corey: Thanks for the instructive comment. What do you make of the comparison of Kateb to Berlin and Rawls? Does Kateb enter Rawls mind later? I found a (meaning only one) reference to Kateb in *Political Liberalism*. I’m unfamiliar with Berlin, so I can’t pin down one best book of his to search. Are these three speaking past each other, outside of “the great conversation”, if you will?

    @Varad: On your first comment, things can get messy because philosophers (political and otherwise, esp. those pesky continental types) look to a useable past and write works that look like intellectual history, or even partial histories of ideas, but are really philosophical meditations (sans the context) of the ideas presented by historical so-and-so as the philosopher thinks they might apply today. You know this, but I think the point deserves re-stating. So those folks could mention Kateb in “historical” studies, but that doesn’t mean they’ve assessed Kateb historically. – TL

  6. @ Tim: Fair comment. As for Berlin, if you are interested in his views on liberalism, start with Liberty. It is an updated and expanded edition of Four Essays on Liberty. It contains all his important writings on the subject, including the seminal “Two Concepts of Liberty,” which must surely be regarded as among the handful of most important writings in political philosophy of the last century.

    @ Corey: It’s possible I’ve come across Bromwich before, but if so his name didn’t stick. I looked him up and from what I found it seems that even though we’re both in the eighteenth century, we study different things. I do almost nothing with English literature, which is his main field. And the eighteenth-century British intellectual history he does isn’t what I do; he focuses on Burke, and I’m before that, not that it’s a primary focus for me. That said, his book A Choice of Inheritance is one I will have to check out, since it’s about a subject I am interested in. So thanks for (indirectly) bringing it to my attention.

  7. @Tim: Kateb is definitely a liberal political theorist, but I’d be leery of putting him in the company of Rawls or Berlin. I mean, I’m fairly certain they were not in dialogue with him, and though he certainly appreciates Rawls’s insights about the institutional and distributive matrices of individual liberty, they write in such different registers, and with such different emphases, that it’s hard for me to see them as part of one conversation. Though I’m sure others could. As for Berlin, I’m sure Kateb would find Berlin’s notion that you can have liberty without democracy to be fairly problematic. Also, while there’s certainly a strong strain of negative liberty in Kateb’s account, he’s far too indebted to Emerson to see that as the end of the story of liberty. It’d be good to get one of the folks I mention above, who were either his students or in dialogue with him, to write a brief statement about all this. I guess I do see him as part of the effort, particularly in the late 1980s, on the part of liberals to push back against communitarian critiques by articulating a more substantive account of the goods of liberal selfhood, on the one hand, and a critique of the perils of gemeinschaft-style thinking that was dominating the discussion with people like Sandel, Taylor, etc. B/c he’s not a systematic thinker, his voice can get lost in recalling that push-back, but for many, it was a critical voice.

    @Varad: You should definitely check him out; I think you’d like him quite a bit. He also weaves interesting commentary about Rousseau in and out of his work, so there might be something there for you. Though you have to dig.

  8. 1) Your comment box may disappear from time to time, since the Google crew decided to universally deploy “threading” (the Reply link) on everyone’s blog templates.

    If that is missing, just hit the “Refresh” button on your browser and it will come back.

    2) The best statement of Kateb’s individualism, his take on rights, Rawls and related matters is his introduction to The Inner Ocean: Individualism and Democratic Culture from your list above. If you Google that, you should see a Google Books link that lets you preview the book, read the introduction and begin to love the man.

    3) I’m always amused by the academic take on things like this, where everybody scrambles to dig up cross-references and then discuss where in the discipline (or out of it) the writer belongs. Everybody needs a tag, I guess. =)

  9. If the Intellectual History Newsletter [1979-1982] were readily available to scholars today, they might be aware that our little field had a close brush with George Kateb ten years ago, when he contributed an essay, “A Glance at Democratic Individuality,” to the symposium on “Liberal Cultures and Their Critics: The Trials of Transatlantic Discourse” in the last issue of the newsletter before it morphed into the new journal, Modern Intellectual History. Other contributors included James Kloppenberg and Dorothy Ross.

    In that piece, Kateb explains his concept of “democratic individuality” and situates his work in the context of 60s movements, the few shining moments of which for him expressed a “potentiality, … [a] democratic spirit” that, growing up “mostly unhappy” in the 50s, he had previously encountered only in the writings of Emerson, Thoreau,and Whitman.

    He is discussed in James P. Young, Reconsidering American Liberalism: The Troubled Odyssey of the Liberal Idea [1999], and was the inspiration for Austin Sarat and Dana R. Villa, eds, Liberal Modernism and Democratic Individuality. George Kateb and the Practices of Politics, in 1996. Contributors included John Hollander, Cornel West, Judith Shklar, William Connolly, Benjamin Barber and Amy Gutmann. Much of work appears in the journals Political Theory and Social Research. [I can suggest more publications if anyone is interested]

    My very limited exposure to Kateb inclines me to support Corey Robin’s observation that he’s an important figure in political theory, both as a scholar and teacher, “voice for a kind of distinctly American radical individualism that is not libertarianism.” Contra Shklar, he offered in 1963 a defense of utopian thinking one might associate with reaction against the exhaustion of mid-century liberalism, out of which the early New Left developed, fueled by a sort of existential humanism that drew from American romantic individualism as an alternative to modernist absurdism. His later work was critical of Rawlsian thin liberalism and the resuscitations of “economic man” on the one hand, and communitarian and strong group identities on the other. In his criticisms of “positive individuality” there seem to be echoes of Lasch’s critique of narcissism and the search for “authenticity.”

    Is it a shame that, since so many of us bloggers are preoccupied with liberalism and conservatism, ideas about politics and the politics of ideas, public intellectualism and the lack thereof, we don’t seem to be attuned to political philosophy, political theory and the like. Maybe we shouldn’t wait for political philosophers to “break into intellectual history,” but go looking for them.

  10. “Maybe we shouldn’t wait for political philosophers to ‘break into intellectual history,’ but go looking for them.”

    As the one who’s being quoted here, all I can say is that that’s probably the only way to go.

    @ Corey: I will check Bromwich out. I need to study Burke more. so when I get to the one I will get to the other.

  11. @Bill: Thanks a million, as always, for your citations. I’m going to have to find that IHN piece by Kateb. As I noted above, it sounds like the perfect case of a political philosopher “doing history” by really digging for a useable past. In other words, it probably makes predictable contextual omissions that might change his use of the past? But I’m just speculating here, because there are philosophers who are conscientious and responsible in their use of history. …Also, I’m now going to have to get that Young book.

    @GT Christie: Those tags are useful mnemonic devices for storing knowledge. Do you not believe that knowledge can be categorized? – TL

    • To the contrary. I am a philosopher, so I tend to categorize almost everything. I wasn’t criticising as much as having a chuckle about ideational boundaries and academic habits of mind.

      In philosophy, for example, everyone tends to be a something-ist and a lot of discussions bog down as tag-tossing debates around what kindof-ist you are. Sometimes the pigeonholes get in the way, especially when there’s new theory afoot. “Yes, but is he a compatibilist or not?” LOL.

  12. I don’t know how the Young book was received, it’s something I’ve had for about fifteen years and pulled off a shelf – while inhaling some dust – to see what he might have said about Kateb. The Sarat and Villa book is interesting as a sort of festshrift, with many prominent people taking off from various facets of his work.

    I tried to suggest how he might be situatable vis-a-vis several people and developments of the 60s-80s that are often of interest to people like us. If I recall, the essay in IHN is more a brief intellectual autobiography than an attempt to ‘do’ history – maybe for him it was a usable self-history.

    Such theorists and philosophers are both topic and resource for intellectual historians.

    The blog has advantages over the old newsletter, which came out only once a year, and in which interlocutors tended not to ‘inter-‘ to any great extent. On the flip, the essays are more formal and perhaps more developed, ie, more academic.

    I’m still hoping someone will take on the project of putting all issues of the IHN online – it would be a great resource for the historicizing of American intellectual history during that period. [Are you out there, Ray?!]

  13. Colleagues,

    Here’s a comment from someone who I’ll let remain anonymous—unless she/he chooses to identify her/himself:

    “I had Kateb for American political theory at Amherst. He was not a typical American individualist– he was more of a radical Emersonian. His individualism shared with Emerson a radical critique of the market economy. I recall once talking with him about Skinner and Pocock. He saw the Cambridge School’s approach as diminishing political philosophy and he was deeply critical of materialism and collectivism.”

    – TL

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